Alice slipped into the house and clicked the door into place behind her.
She rested her back against the door, pressing herself into the solidity of the wood and trying to still the slight tremble that had followed her home. Closing her eyes, she took a slow breath, working to avoid the nagging truth that scratched at the back door of her brain, whining for attention like a starving puppy. It was a fact Alice found more terrifying than anything she’d ever faced.
Her death-visions were back.
It had been almost ten years since Alice had a vision. As a young girl, she would see them all the time. The last one came when she was seven-years-old, and a kind elderly man who bent to retrieve her notebook from where she dropped it in the street transformed into some kind of hairless monster with glowing red eyes and yellow fangs. Alex had screamed at the monster and said every swearword she’d ever heard. The next day she was taken out of her school and sent to a special school for “troubled” children. Over the years, with the help of many counseling sessions, she managed to convince herself that the visions she saw were nothing more than the figments of a child’s overactive imagination.
But this time was different. This time she knew what she had seen, and it was no hallucination. Alice wasn’t sure why, but somehow she knew deep in her bones that what she’d seen today was real. That man sitting in the principal’s office was dead with a capital “D”. No question about it. She had no idea what the thing was that now lived inside the dead man’s body, wearing him around like a cheap suit, but she did know that it was evil. And she knew that it had seen her.
That thing had seen the look on her face. It knew she recognized it for what it was. She had the horrifying feeling that whatever it was, it did not want to be identified, and there was no way it was going to let her walk away now that she knew it was there. But what could she do? It’s not like her grandmother would believe her if Alice told her what she’d seen. None of her teachers at school would either. Talking about her vision would only get her sent back to those mind-numbing therapy sessions. Or worse, this time they might lock her away for good.
“Alice?” her grandma called from the other room. “That you, baby?”
“Yeah, Grandma,” Alice said.
“Better get supper going. Royce needs to eat before practice.”
Alice took a deep breath. She stepped away from the door and forced her limbs to stop trembling.
She didn’t have time for this. Her brother needed dinner before basketball practice, then after the dishes were clean she had a pile of homework waiting for her in her bedroom.
She didn’t have time to lose her mind right now.
Alice moved down a short hallway to her bedroom at the back of the small house. She put away her things from school then headed to the kitchen to start dinner. While she cooked, she allowed her mind to drift, losing herself in the practiced motion of her work and never allowing her thoughts to settle in any one place.
Royce wandered through the door. He kicked off his Jordans and slid past Alice in the tiny kitchen to rummage in the pantry.
“Get outta there.” Alice scolded, reaching up to swat at Royce’s head. “I’ve got dinner on right now.”
He’d hit a growth spurt this year, and Alice still wasn’t used to looking up at her brother. When he hugged his big sister, Royce’s arms would wrap around her small frame and she felt like she was being smothered by a giant. Today he wore his standard athletic shorts and a faded Star Wars t-shirt. Alice had seen Royce do some amazing things on the basketball court, but she knew her brother loved science just as much. His bedroom sported an odd blend of basketball memorabilia and science fiction fandom. Royce could land a jump shot one minute and expound on the physics of the ball hitting backboard the next, walking the line between athlete and science geek. Alice had always been jealous of her brother’s duel nature. She loved him for it even as it drove her crazy.
Royce ducked Alice’s swipe, grabbing a chocolate granola bar and shuffling out of reach.
“Don’t worry about it, sis.” He winked as he tore open his snack. “I’ll just take care of this one for you real quick.”
He took a big bite and tossed her a smug grin.
“Boy, you better hope Grandma doesn’t catch you spoiling your dinner like that,” Alice said. She smiled, allowing the banter with her brother to wash away some of the tension between her eyebrows.
But Royce’s smile faded a bit.
“How’s grandma feeling today?”
Alice shrugged, shaking her head once as the corners of her mouth turned towards the linoleum floor.
“I don’t know,” she said, busying herself again with dinner. “Haven’t been in to see her yet.”
Alice’s grandma suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, causing her to spend most of her days parked in a beat-up recliner, nursing her aching joints and taking in Netflix dramas.
“I’ll check on her,” Royce said.
Her brother was a clown sometimes, but when it came to Grandma, he was like an old nursemaid. He did just as much for her as Alice did, bringing her meals, running errands, making her as comfortable as possible. They were a team, the three of them working together to get from one day to the next.
“Thanks,” Alice said.
As Royce left the room she paused. The spoon she’d been using clattered to the counter and she closed her eyes. Her hands began to shake again.
“Just breathe,” she murmured. “We have each other.”
That was the last thing Alice’s mother had ever said to her. Seven-year-old Alice had not wanted to stay at Grandma’s house, still fragile and emotional from her recent death-visions. She’d begun to cry. Her mother gathered her into warm arms and spoke softly.
“Just breathe, Alice. You have each other, you, Royce, and Grandma. That’s all you need.”
She was supposed to come back for them in a day or two, but the car accident took her away. Now Alice clung to those final words from her mother like a lifeline, whispering them to herself when the pressures of caring for Grandma and Royce, and school, and everything got to be too much.
Just breathe. We have each other.
At the dinner table, Grandma said a prayer over the meal Alice had prepared. Alice tasted very little of her food. Her mind strayed back to the principal’s office, watching again as the dead man’s face melted into horror.
“Alice,” Grandma said, “you’re quiet tonight. Everything alright, baby?”
“I’m ok. Just have a lot of homework and studying to do.”
Grandma patted her hand.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie,” her smile was a warm blanked over Alice, “You’ll get it all done. You always do. Just focus on one thing at a time and you’ll get through it.”
Alice returned the smile, hoping Grandma wouldn’t notice the fear in her eyes.
“Thanks, Grandma. You always know just what to say.”
“Just don’t focus too hard,” Royce cut in. “Don’t wanna hurt that tiny brain of yours.”
“Whatever, jock.” Alice smirked and threw her crumpled napkin at him. “At least I don’t have a head full of air like a basketball.”
Royce caught the napkin, wiped his mouth with, and winked.
“Speaking of basketball,” he said, sliding out of his seat, “I gotta get to practice.”
He kissed Grandma’s cheek.
“Be safe,” she told him.
“I will,” he said. “Home in a couple hours.”
Royce jogged out the door, and Grandma turned to Alice.
“You sure it’s just the homework on your mind?”
Alice was tempted to tell Grandma everything. She’d know what to say to ease Alice’s fears and put things back into perspective. It was a gift she had. Even back when Alice was having her death-visions as a child, Grandma could always make her feel better with just a few words and a hug. But things were different now. Grandma had enough to deal with. She didn’t need to be burdened with Alice’s particular form of crazy. And besides, Alice was not that little girl anymore, trembling in the corner with her hands over her eyes. She could handle this on her own.
And if things went badly, she’d make sure that Royce and Grandma did not get swallowed up in the same insanity that claimed her. No matter what the cost.
When dinner was cleaned up, Alice climbed the narrow staircase to her bedroom. She shared the stuffy upper floor of the house with Royce. Alice’s room was on one side of the house, and Royce’s was on the other, with a shared bathroom in between.
Alice hadn’t lied to grandma. She really did have a lot of studying to do, but after the events of that day, there was no way she could focus on school work. So instead, she did what she had always done when she needed to escape from the realities of her life: she opened her window and climbed out onto the roof. The heat of the day lingered in the roof shingles and warmed Alice against the cool of the evening as she rested her back against their rough surface. She cradled her head in her hands, looking up at a scattering of early evening stars and allowing her mind to wander among them.
Solitude had always been Alice’s hiding place. A few moments alone did her a world of good when it came to recovering from the pressures of life. The quiet of the rooftop was the perfect place for her to lose herself in a moment of stillness and decompress.
Alone with her thoughts, Alice could almost allow herself to believe that the events of that afternoon had not really happened. She gave herself over to the fantasy that her death-visions were still safely buried in the distant past. She had not seen a dead man move or heard him speak in that voice like grinding stone. She hadn’t watched his face melt into a mask of terror or felt the excruciating pressure in her head that always accompanied her visions. Alice closed her eyes and sighed, enjoying a brief moment of peace against the chaos she was certain was on its way toward her.
The neighborhood around her was draped in quiet. Most of the working-class families who lived there had gone indoors for the night, preparing themselves for work or school the next day. The only sound to reach her was the quiet hum of a single car engine making its way through the neighborhood.
The engine noise grew louder as the car drove deeper into the neighborhood, eventually rounding the corner to creep its way down her street. Alice had not even registered the sound until the car neared the front of her house and slowed to a gentle stop at the curb beside her driveway.
Alice sat up on one elbow. She had no idea who would be stopping in front of her house this time of night. The dark four-door sedan sat idling for a moment, its lone occupant a vague silhouette in the driver side window. Alice didn’t recognize the car and she couldn’t tell who was in the driver’s seat, but as the engine died, its steady hum giving way to a slow ticking, an uneasy feeling crept its way across her spine. When the driver’s side door opened, and the driver stepped from the vehicle to stand in the weak light of the street, Alice’s world froze in an instant as terror clutched at her heart.
It was the dead man.